by JASSEM AL SALAMI
Some old but very interesting pictures of Syrian Mi-17s have circulated online recently. The pics show the helicopters with Iranian-made infrared sensors.
The open-source military blogger Oryx analyzed the technology, which he said allows “for even greater flexibility while flying attack sorties.”
It’s not clear how new the modifications are, Oryx added.
But we can safely assert that Iran’s defense industry carried out the updates prior to the 2011 uprising against the regime of Pres. Bashar Al Assad. We also know the regime’s not actually using the upgrades.
The state-owned Iranian Electronic Industries produces the sensor turret in the photos. The company has exhibited the turret at several domestic expositions. A private engineering firm in Tehran—which now produces remote-control weapon stations—designed the control system.
Iran’s army aviation wing and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force have a program for updating their transport helicopters with reconnaissance packages.
The program includes installation of a multi-purpose display screen inside the cockpit, plus a fixture for attaching and detaching different turrets containing surface search radars, forward-looking infrared systems and targeting equipment.
In many cases, the upgrades make the copters compatible with new Gatling gun pods, S-13 rockets and guided missiles.
A limited number of Iranian helicopters have gone through the upgrade program. For instance, Chinook and Bell-214 helicopters based near Isfahan—home to Iran’s nuclear program—got the updates. This is to help Iranian security forces patrol near the nuclear sites in case of an attack by saboteurs.
The IRGC-AF’s Mi-17 helicopters went through a similar upgrade program, which added sensor turrets, S-13 rockets and jammers. These helicopters later flew into action against Kurdish rebels in western Iran.
Prior to the war in Syria, the Iranian and Syrian air forces had a very close relationship. Every year, Syrian aircraft came to Iran for joint exercises with Iranian pilots, and vice versa.
In the spring of 2010, just a few months before the bloody uprising in Syria, Syrian helicopters performed a public air show in the southwestern Iranian city of Dezful.
But it’s a well-established fact that barrel bombs—not precision-guided weapons—are the Syrian air force’s main weapon against the rebels. Called barmeels in Syria, the barrels contain fertilizer explosives which helicopter crews drop onto cities.
The majority of the barmeels come from Iraq, where Shia militias commanded by Iranians construct them for export.
It’s a devastating form of warfare. In several cases, Syrian rebels have even retrieved decommissioned Iranian coins that the Syrian regime is apparently packing into the barrel bombs as shrapnel.
The contrast between a moderately sophisticated program meant to help Syrian helicopters attack their targets precisely—and simply throwing explosive-filled barrels from those helicopters—reveals just how much the situation in Syria has changed since the 2011 uprising.
Before the uprising, professional units in the Iranian army and IRGC were responsible for upgrading the Syrian army’s own capabilities. Three years later, Iranian commanders advising Syrian army get selected based on their loyalty, not their military knowledge.
The prevalence of loyal but incompetent Iranian advisers explains how Syria can possess upgraded helicopters but not actually use their advanced systems. The poor leadership has weighed on the Syrian military’s combat effectiveness and increased the civilian death toll.